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Low scores from Park fans skew ratings
Twice I tried to watch the original Oldboy and neither time did I ever make it to the end. I'm not queasy about violence or detached, normally, from the world of the bizarre, but when you combine both elements with Korean, it all becomes a bit much. The Chan-wook Park Oldboy a level of bravery to watch much like that required to volunteer for surgery without anesthetic or painkillers.
But I was curious about Spike Lee's version and following him on Twitter, I told him (or whoever tweets for him) that I hoped it would be a bit less "hardcore." And it is.
(A funny anecdote. I entered the theater early and discovered 3 older, grandmotherly white women--probably in their 60s--all sitting together in the row in front of me. Amused, I walked over to them & said "excuse me, but you all don't look like the typical Oldboy fans to me." They all looked up at me with one face, "what are typical Oldboy fans?" One woman on the end was kinda smirking. I replied, "the original is somewhat brutal and bizarre--I tried to watch it twice and failed in both attempts." Then they started looking at each other and two pointed to the smirking woman. "She suggested it! We don't know anything about it!" Those women sat fully absorbed throughout the film.)
Which leads me to my next point. The Korean Oldboy was very much a spectacle that in many places was just really painful to sit through (if you're not the type to play gory video games on a regular basis). Lee's Oldboy does serve up some of that brutality, but there is a story attached to it that helps override the few (and less) gory parts. Is it better. On its own merits, it's okay. In fact, I probably will watch it again when it's released on DVD. It's not as spectacular and imaginative as Park's but it is engaging.
In some ways, it reminds me of the Pedro Almodavar film "The Skin I Live In," an equally bizarre story with an unexpected twist at the end and a film I truly admired. Don't let the low scores keep you away. It really is more worth your money than nearly all the other junk at the movies today.
The Fall (2013)
Excellent Combo of Prime Suspect & Red Riding Trilogy
And note that both my nods to great crime thrillers were directed to British productions. The hunt for a serial killer gets a complicated but teeth-gnashing treatment in this beautifully produced series, The Fall. Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a focused, rather humorless, detective who takes control of the investigation once she ascertains that recent murders are indeed the work on one killer. She doesn't have to fight the battles that plagued Jane Tennyson, however. The male officers pretty much cede control and follow her lead & respect her authority and insight. But she is like Tennyson in that she's sacrificed the personal for the professional, indulging in the occasional "sweet night" to satisfy her sexual desires.
The first episode will definitely hook you. It is as creepy as anything I've seen as we watch the killer stalk his victim and commit his crime. Like the film, The Boston Strangler, we know who the killer is upfront--the thrill is in wondering if he'll succeed in thwarting the hunt. On many levels, the killer remains enigmatic through the season.
How I wish American shows--like the recently launched Hannibal--were as top-drawer as this one. Wonderful writing, good subplots, deftly drawn characters that present realistically, not cartoonishly. It's astonishing that yet another serial killer hunt series can provide a story that so skillfully hooks an audience.
Phil Spector (2013)
I'm thinking that Pacino and Mirren must have had a lot of faith in David Mamet when making this horrible movie. It must be difficult during the filming to assess the quality of the work; it's done in bits and pieces so you leave the vision in the director's hands. Still, they must have had a clue.
There is really nothing worth critiquing in this dark and sad film. There are no human emotions demonstrated among any of the characters, especially among the crew of lawyers whose aim, it seems to me, was to give Spector a defense he could pay a million dollars for.
If you want to see Pacino in a terrific role for his increasing age, see him in HBO's "I Don't Know Jack," about Jack Kevorkian. As for this film, all I can wonder is why on earth Mamet did it.
Ben Affleck continues hitting them out of the park. Based on a true story, Argo re-enacts the events that freed American foreign service employees from their hideout in the Canadian Embassy. The setup involves Affleck's character, Mendes, putting together the cover story of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in the Mideast for a sci-fi movie. Alan Arkin & John Goodman are hilarious as Hollywood hotshots producing this surefire scifi hit. The process follows Mendes as he enters Iran and has to BS his way to some skeptical and hostile Iranian theocrats who almost don't know how to respond to the possibility of a scifi movie set in Iran. Mendes must also deal with frightened and reluctant Americans who are being forced out in the open to pose as a movie crew. Affleck does a good job of injecting suspense and dread all through this section.
But the real nail biter is their exit from Iran. As in other movies of this ilk, the chase heats up with the Iranians on the heels of the Americans. Affleck throws into this chase a huge boulder of an obstacle when President Carter pulls the plug on the film crew ex-filtration & decides to go with Delta soldiers instead. If you want to know what happens, I advise you to see the movie or read the news accounts.
This just goes to show you that not all CIA covert actions are led by armed fighters like Jason Bourne and launched by the Treadstone department. Affleck's character doesn't even carry a gun--he carries a script instead.
About 30 minutes into the film, I realized that the use of Lincoln as the protagonist was really nothing more than a jokey gimmick designed to attract an audience to a Batman Begins movie set during the 1800s. Why else watch this movie except for the titillating idea of Abraham Lincoln perhaps having been involved in something from the occult?
If you're going to involve an important historical figure in your work, I'd think you'd try to marry the history to the activity--what is it about vampire hunting that suggests a different bit of insight about Lincoln?
Lincoln was a very formal man of his times. He certainly wouldn't have used the American language in the ways he does here. Nor do I see Lincoln as having the kinetic range of a Neo in Matrix. He was a tall man with a deliberate gait and not at all as animated as he's presented here. This is a character "named" Abraham Lincoln, not "being" Abraham Lincoln.
I was bored because I was watching a substandard super hero comic book kind of movie. All that research supposedly done to convey realism was a waste of time and effort. Someone should have researched language and customs.
I forced myself to stay through the train fight video game, then simply walked out on the film. I felt tricked into watching a bad movie that I wouldn't even pay a $1 for in the box.
The Iron Lady (2011)
If not for Meryl Streep...
...I wouldn't have even watched this film, given my lifelong left-wing principles which make me despise ultra conservatives like Thatcher, Nixon, and Reagan, and Dubya Bush. But my admiration for Meryl Streep, who has an incredibly magical talent for becoming a character, tempted me to take a look, despite my loathing of Ironpants.
If it weren't for Streep, this film would have been nothing. It's really a one-woman film focusing on Thatcher's drive to power, her marriage to beloved Dennis, her twins. While we aren't forced to sympathize with her views and policies, Streep does an effective job at revealing the person who comes to the same juncture that we all march toward--old age, aloneness, debility--and prompting our sympathy for someone who has reached that point in time where we have more memories than future. Getting old is not something to look forward to, being a grown up baby in need of minders. Personally, I dread the prospect and look gratefully to the Hemlock Society the moment my drivers license is taken away from me.
Meryl Streep could play anyone convincingly. I look forward to her tackling Nina Simone.
Miss Bala (2011)
Sometimes real life stories need some work
I gave this film a 7 instead of a 6 because, despite its late half problems, the film is quite watchable and absorbing...if not somewhat enigmatic. Laura is an ordinary Mexican girl who wants to cash in on her looks by becoming Miss Baja Mexico. Unfortunately, an outing with a friend at a popular club propels her into the midst of a drug cartel war where she is ultimately and easily taken hostage (thanks to a corrupt system) and then forced to involve herself in a string of illegal activities.
Where this film begins to falter is with the personality of Laura. She sort of becomes an Elizabeth Smart, the young girl in Utah who was kidnapped from her home and forced to live with her captors and who, despite several good opportunities, never made an effort to escape or resist. Laura's passivity is distracting as we wonder what's wrong with her--is she shell- shocked, does she have Stockholm syndrome, is she just stupid? The director tries to convince us that her motivation to do as she's told comes from her desire to protect her little brother from any retaliatory flak that might come from her disobedience...but you never get the idea that she's being threatened in that way, especially in the last half of the film.
I immediately thought of Maria, Full of Grace when I watched Miss Bala--a much better film about a young girl's involvement with the drug trade, with a solidly built narrative.
The Beaver (2011)
A surprisingly excellent film
I just rented the DVD last night and must admit was not all that enthusiastic about the choice. Who wants to see a film about a guy who takes up with a toy beaver? But, amazingly, the more I got into the film, the more engrossed I became. Mel Gibson does a brilliant job as Walter Black, a darkly depressed middle aged man whose despair over his lack of feeling leads to lethargy and destroys everything in his life, predictably resulting in thoughts of suicide. No one really wants to die--death is forever. So it's a perverted attempt at self rescue when Walter finds a beaver puppet in a trashcan and converts it into an alter ego--with an Australian accent!-- that restores him to life.
Anyone who's suffered from depression knows what a debilitating, painful mental illness it is. Many turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping-- anything to relieve them of their agony. It is a slow dark march toward death. That Walter bonds with a puppet to drag him back from that march is initially absurd but also laudable. That he succeeds in convincing others that his remedy is acceptable is ludicrously uplifting...at first.
But the puppet is perhaps the mania edge of Walter's bipolar malady. And eventually he finds himself in conflict again, in descent.
What's remarkable about this film is Mel Gibson's performance. He committed 1000% to this role and played Walter Black as a man wrangling with mental illness and trying to deal with it as best he could. I found him totally believable and empathized with him completely.
The major subplot dealing with Walter's son who is more like his father than he's willing to consciously accept is perhaps a bit neat, a bit heavy handed, but it is interesting and does work. Kudos to the screenwriter for whom this script was a first time effort and first sale.
Mel Gibson has had some personal problems also played out spectacularly in the media. I suspect he's not far from Walter Black himself. As a black person, I should be upset at him. But I'm not. I don't believe he's a racist for some reason. I believe he was, he is, a man under pressure and an unhappy man rooting around for a joy in living that once came so easily for all of us. I've always been a Mel Gibson fan and will continue to be.
Not really better than the original
Why do an English language version of a stunning foreign film? There are all sorts of reasons to do so and good ones. Perhaps the foreign culture got in the way of Americans appreciating the story fully, or perhaps the film was not well distributed in English-language countries. The North American market is huge and there are plenty of dollars for a film that probably played mostly in art houses (e.g. Pour Elle became The Next Three Days--practically duplicates). Tattoo, however, had a robust DVD viewing, so it's not like it lacked exposure. And sometimes a director has a particular point of view that he or she thinks will enhance or illuminate the story -- perfectly reasonable.
But I really cannot say why David Fincher took on a redo of this film. He brought nothing new to it. It's a copy tweaked here and there and not near as gritty as the original. And I'm not all that enthusiastic about some of the changes he made in Lisbeth's or Blomquist's character or in the story wrap up.
The first hour is quite slow--I even nodded off for a few minutes. It picks up when Lisbeth and Blomquist finally begin working together, although this Lisbeth is somewhat more into Blomquist. Despite Lisbeth's severe goth look, it's not as hard and realistic as Rapace's. Rooney Mara is Hollywood Lisbeth. Rapace has more street cred,she wasn't pretty & looked somewhat boyish.
I love David Fincher, think he's one of the best storytellers in film today. But I can't see compelling reasons for his efforts in this film. In any case, you'll enjoy the movie...again. But you won't leave the theatre in shock and awe.
A Role in Search of a Series in Chicago
Kelsey Grammar is outstanding in this role as a mayor of Chicago who's suffering from an incurable neurological disease. His obsession with power includes some demoniacal activities that I hope Chicago mayors have not indulged in. However most of the story lines just aren't up to snuff to give Grammar his ovation. For one, there is way too much soft porn and nudity worked in for no reason other than to titillate. Sex may occur in Chicago, but not to this extent.
My other complaint centers on the lack of an authentic Chicago feel to the show. When Boss's wife referred to his birthplace in Bridgeport, I choked on my popcorn. No way Kelsey Grammar behaves or speaks like someone from Bridgeport. In fact, there are few characters on this show that are recognizably Chicagoan. Without the background shots, this could be about the mayor of Hollywood. Refinement is not Chicago's fine point. (If this took place in Evanston or Wilmette, the characters might be more believable although the mayor would certainly go to the gas chamber).
Coming from Chicago, the inauthentic-ness really bothered me. Not even the drug dealers rang true. If Starz intends to continue Boss, it should get some real Chicago actors who can convey the city, hire a Chicago writer. It's a city with a rich culture that would only help this series were it re-created in a more genuine fashion. If not, I suggest you re title the series-- The Godfather, for example.
An update regarding Season 2: The new season is much better than the first. The story lines and characters are more deeply presented, outside of their sexual proclivities. Producers seemed to realize the Kelsey Grammar is what makes this show so he is on camera a lot and shown from an array of viewpoints. His infatuation with Sanaa Latham's character is provocative...and sad. You often veer from hating to pitying to admiring this man. I wish the other characters were as magnetic as Boss.
This still has nothing to do with the reality of chicago, its people or its politics. Throw in a little Streets and Sanitation, a little O'Hare, a little lakefront and voila! This story is really not about the city of Chicago, it's about a King who is losing his mind and trying to hide it to keep the buzzards at bay. Definitely enjoyed this season so far.